PhD life


Yesterday I logged in to my Manchester University library account and discovered that I can no longer renew my books.  This came as a bit of a surprise.  There’s nothing urgent, you understand, it just brought home to me the fact that, slowly and surely, I’m being set adrift in the big, wide world again.  I still sit here at my desk and get on with my work, but Chicken Licken keeps telling me that the sky is falling in, and he’s right. One day soon, I’ll attempt to log in to the State Papers Online or EEBO, only to find that access is denied. It’s not a day I’m looking forward to at all.  I no longer count as a student in the eyes of the university – I haven’t, actually, since last October.

I am academically homeless.

I think the proper, or at least more normal, term is ‘independent researcher’, and maybe ‘academically homeless’ sounds a bit needy, but it reflects quite accurately how I feel.  There’s security in a big institution and not just in the shape of database access.

Research and writing at the moment comes in fits and starts, broken by rounds of job applications and fellowship applications.  I have a book proposal to write (who warned you about needing to learn that new skill when you started out?) and I am haunted from day to day by the ever-present spectre of John Roberts.  Sometime in the next few weeks I’m going to decide whether to write the article again from scratch or knock him on the head for good.  It might well be the latter, in the interests of the book.  Maybe dead horses should not be flogged, as my Fiend once said.  The trouble is that I never was very good at giving up on things.

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This afternoon I had my mock viva, which was an interesting experience. It was reassuring, in that I survived and there was only one question that I felt I completely flunked. That said, there were several others that brought home to me the need to be certain of my own position, which of course is only possible if you’re completely in command of your material and of what others have said about it.

So I’ve come home armed with two bag-loads of books and a lot on my mind – which is not to say that it’s all bad. The first job when I got in was to have a brew (this thesis was definitely fuelled by tea and chocolate, in a way that perhaps Huw and Tony Williams would have appreciated), the second to have a chat with my Fiend to take my mind off things and the third, to write my ‘to do’ list. You can see it above. I have another Fiend (yes, I manage to have more than one Fiend despite the fact that I spend a lot of time in the company of dead people and their preoccupation with death) who is the Queen of Lists. She would approve, I’m sure. That was once the wall on which my huge list of 16th century ballads used to hang. Now it holds all the things I need to do in the next ten days. I think I’ve got my work cut out. I have to admit that they aren’t all viva-related – there’s a section on research proposals, on articles and on the lecture I’m preparing for A level students on Henry VIII’s break with Rome, as well as for the Bolton Historical Association work that I need to get on with and for family matters. Happily, the conference proposal for Reading is nearly ready and the one for Voices and Books has gone (thanks, Una!).  But I’ve certainly got plenty to keep me occupied. Which is good.

This morning I lifted my thesis from the bookshelf and looked at it for the first time since I put it there in September.  I have to admit that there is a certain amount of pride just from in holding it in my hands.  It’s a substantial piece of work and represents a good three years of my life, so I feel justified in taking some pleasure from the simple fact of its existence.

Reading through it, however, has produced some wildly conflicting emotions.  Actually, so far I’ve only got to page 57 of 328, but I can already spot the bits I worked on at 2 in the morning!  I’ve been thinking through the sorts of questions I might ask if I were my examiner and preparing to justify some of the decisions that I made in writing about ballad music in my first chapter.  But along the way there have been some occasions when I thought what I’d written would sit comfortably alongside other works of early modern history, and other moments when I cringed at the way I expressed myself!  Most of all, it has brought home to me how much easier some of my points could be made with recordings of the music, so that has to be a way forward for the future.  It’s much easier to hear what I mean that it is to see it, when it comes to the musical examples.

New Year’s Day, and I am back at my desk for the first time in several months, mainly in a late attempt to put together a panel for the Reading Early Modern Studies conference in July, for which the call for papers closes very soon.  It’s galvanised me into thinking properly about ballads again for the first time in several months.  I’m also thinking about an abstract for the Voices and Books Research Network conference in the summer.

It feels good to be back here.   So I have decided to share my new year’s resolutions. I don’t usually make them, but as I have ‘time on my hands’ (do I really?) I’ve decided that this year I’m going to make a real effort to learn to play the piano and I’m going to crack the Spanish once and for all. I have two books for the piano that will help if I make myself do it. As for the Spanish, I don’t know quite how I’ll go about it, though I think Juanes, Penguin parallel texts and Spanish news media might play a heavy role…

More immediately and more ‘smart’ in terms of their outcomes, here are my 2015 spring goals:
1. Gain the title of doctor.  My viva is at the end of the month.  More than that you’re not going to find out until afterwards!
2. Revise the articles on John Roberts and the Lady Marques ballad.
3. Put together a post-doc application.

What a coincidence that this turned up in my wordpress reader this evening, when it was something on which I have been musing today. I have had a PhD experience that was far less than perfect. I’ve said before that I was prepared for everything to go pear shaped, but not in the first few days. I’ve also commented that my thesis has seen off more supervisors than most people have had hot dinners. Then there was the writer’s block, depression, and of course, the ‘headache’ that landed me in hospital. But I was never close to giving up.

The reason I stuck it out through the bad times was simple: despite all the rubbish (and believe me, there’s been a lot more of that than ever appeared in this blog), I’m doing something I love.

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We hear a lot these days about people quitting the PhD – they have institutional difficulties, experience appalling discrimination, have serious supervision troubles, struggle with funding. These are dreadful experiences and we do need to hear about them. We also hear quite a lot about how hard the PhD is and the struggles to get finished. I don’t want to dismiss any of this discussion. It’s all important, right and necessary. However, I worry that the narratives about the awful sometimes outweigh the more optimistic. I do think that maybe we need to hear more about what makes people hang in and what helps them finish.

Now I need to say here and now that I don’t think that starting a PhD and not finishing is necessarily a problem. I’ve seen people who didn’t need the PhD for their careers, and in the end couldn’t justify the amount of time…

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DSCF3258  With the children on their Easter break, work over the last couple of weeks has been rather hit and miss.  Mainly miss, to be honest.  But I have spent some time working on a short historiographical piece about the relationship between ballads and news, which I’m happy to say is nearly finished.  In the end it will form part of the final chapter of my thesis, although not the very beginning of it as I’ve found a nice piece from the State Papers to open the chapter.  The historiographical essay runs from Shaaber and Rollins through to much more recent work by Joad Raymond, Angela McShane and Adam Fox.  It looks at popular song in France, Italy and Spain as well as England.  Earlier this week I bought Andrew Pettegree’s latest book, The Invention of News, so I’ve included some of his comments too.

Last week I was lucky enough to attend two workshops in the space of two days.  DSCF3242Both held in Manchester, the first was the ‘Music, Circulation and the Public Sphere’ workshop at which I presented my first paper to an audience of musicologists, ‘Ballads and the Public Sphere in Sixteenth Century England’.  It was scary but fun, and the paper seemed to go down quite well.  On the strength of it I was invited to attend another workshop on ‘Voices and Books, 1500-1800’.  That was a very interesting day and a half, at which I found myself sitting next to a professor from Harvard!  It really brought home to me the importance of the ballads as songs.  Of course, one of the aims of my thesis is to investigate the ballads as song rather than text where it is possible, but it’s easy to forget the oral culture in which they played a part when you are working with just the words.  The workshop gave me a lot of things to think about, especially with the chapter on which I’m currently working – topical ballads performed in public spaces provoking debate about the news of the day.

Apart from the two days in Manchester, the rest of the work has been crammed in between days out to Dunham Massey, Rufford Old Hall, Fountains Abbey and Stainforth.  Lots of walking in the spring sunshine!

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This week is the first week of my children’s Easter holiday, so I am juggling childcare with work. Cramming little bits of work into wherever it will fit isn’t easy and it certainly doesn’t allow for extended research or writing, for example. But there are little things that I can do. I went through a conference paper in the bath this afternoon, without the paper notes I will use on Friday. At least now I know exactly where I need to rely on my notes more heavily and where I can afford to abandon them altogether! On Sunday afternoon I recorded a few more ballads. I’m considering an introduction and conclusion to a short piece I’m writing on the historiography of ballads and the news. In the end it will be part of my chapter on ballads as a form of news media. There is a significant majority of historians who agree that ballads could provide news as well as entertainment before the development of newspapers, but little detail on what actually constituted ‘news’ in the sixteenth century. That’s a question I’ve been trying to answer myself in the last few weeks, but one interesting theory came from a rather unexpected source. Discussing the issue of what makes something ‘news’ with my two elder children during a car journey over the weekend (and they raised it, not me!), my elder son pointed out that news DID include opinion or editorial commentary, because if we were all clones, we wouldn’t need any news because we would all think the same way about everything. Only if we were all clones who thought the same way, could news be objective. Profound, I thought, especially coming from a primary school pupil.

Last week I tried to cram in as much writing as I could because I knew I would have less time for it in the next few weeks, but the pattern was broken by a trip into Manchester to record a short video interview about my PhD for the department website. When one of my colleagues had asked me a few questions about my work, I then got to ask the questions of another friend. I found that considerably more difficult. I can talk endlessly about my work, but semi-improvised questioning was really hard.

On Friday, I go to my first music conference: Music, Circulation and the Public Sphere. It’s perfect for my research and it will be interesting, if rather nerve-wracking to talk to an audience of musicians rather than historians. I’m very much looking forward to it, as I’m hoping that I’ll get some feedback to help me answer some of the questions I raised in a previous post on Musical Musings. I’m going to talk about ballads and news, how they provoked debate among their audience, before raising some questions about the development of popular and sacred music in the Renaissance period.

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